The Islamist-led Shura Council (the upper house of Egypt's parliament, currently endowed with legislative powers) on Sunday gave preliminary approval – by a hefty majority and with surprising speed – to new legislation governing the activities of non-governmental organisations operating in Egypt.
The draft law was presented as an alternative to Law 84 of 2002, which makes Egypt's social affairs ministry responsible for licensing NGOs.
On Sunday, the law – drafted by the council's human development committee – was rammed through the council in only one hour. Committee chairman Abdel-Azim Mahmoud, a leading member of the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), explained that the committee "decided to take the initiative and submit a new NGO law because the government has so far failed to draft one of its own."
The FJP's Essam El-Erian, Shura Council spokesman, stated on Sunday that the new NGO law "was drafted by FJP MPs in their capacity as MPs authorised to propose legislation in the Shura Council."
El-Erian rejected the government's argument that council members were not entitled by Article 101 of Egypt's constitution to propose laws. "The new constitution gives Shura members full legislative powers; we are not here simply to rubber-stamp laws from the government," he said.
The FJP's NGO law, however, was rammed through the council after the Supreme Administrative Court's board of advisors stated on 20 March that the Muslim Brotherhood was an "outlawed group" that should be dissolved.
This forced group officials to move quickly on two fronts. First, they surprised observers by announcing that the Brotherhood had already been registered by the social affairs ministry on 19 March.
Minister of Social Affairs Nagwa Khalil had announced on 21 March that Article 51 of the new constitution gave the Muslim Brotherhood and other political forces 24 hours to be formally registered as NGOs.
"The group submitted a fully-documented request on 19 March to be officially registered as an NGO and the request was accepted in accordance with Article 51 of the constitution," said Khalil.
On another front, Ahmed Fahmi, chairman of the Shura Council and a leading official of the Muslim Brotherhood, argued that "the fact that the FJP's draft law was approved in principle does not mean that the council isn't ready to discuss a government-drafted NGO law."
Omar El-Sharif, deputy justice minister, told the council that the row that hit Egypt over the foreign funding of NGOs following the 2011 revolution had catalysed the government to seriously contemplate a new NGO law.
"We want an NGO law free of the 2002 law's serious defects in terms of tightening control on foreign funding of NGOs in Egypt and helping NGOs in general contribute to the development of this country," said El-Sharif.
He went on to announce that the government would present the Shura Council with its NGO draft law "within days."
The FJP's NGO law strictly prohibits registered NGOs from obtaining foreign funding. "This includes obtaining funding from foreigners or Egyptians living abroad," according to the law's explanatory memorandum. It also forces registered NGOs to obtain official permission before transferring money abroad.
What's more, the bill prohibits NGO board members from having armed militias or realising profits from the organisation's activities.
According to Mahmoud, the law defines NGOs as groups that are "not involved in profitable activities" and that simply "aim to achieve humanitarian, developmental and/or economic objectives."
Mahmoud said the law calls for a 'coordination committee' to be set up within the framework of the social affairs ministry to be solely responsible for reviewing foreign NGOs.
"The word 'foreign' includes NGOs subject to international agreements or that work in the field of civil society in general," he said, adding that "the proposed coordination committee will also be in charge of scrutinising the programmes and funds of these foreign NGOs."
The FJP bill forces existing NGOs, currently governed by the 2002 law, to adjust themselves to the new regulations within one year. It also calls for the boards of these NGOs to be reformulated according to the new law. The social affairs minister, meanwhile, will be expected to issue the law's executive regulations within two months.
The haste with which it debated the FJP's NGO law brought the Shura Council under opposition fire. Mohamed Anwar El-Sadat, chairman of the liberal-oriented Reform and Development Party and member of the board of Egypt's General Federation of NGOs, accused the Muslim Brotherhood of seizing control of the Shura Council and pressuring the social affairs ministry into granting it a license.
"It is regrettable that Social Affairs Minister Nagwa Khalil allowed herself to be manipulated by Brotherhood officials into giving the group an automatic licence," El-Sadat told Ahram Online. "Anyway, the process of registering the Brotherhood is very vague; and they did it very quickly in the same autocratic way as former president Hosni Mubarak's ruling party, in order not to be scrutinised by any institution and remain above the law."
El-Sadat added: "The FJP's NGO law does not put the financial activities of the Muslim Brotherhood under the scrutiny of the central auditing agency, because its officials allege that the group's funding comes from member contributions, thus exempting them from any financial review."
El-Sadat also said that the FJP bill stated that "some NGOs can obtain licenses as full-fledged institutions." This, he added, gives the Brotherhood the right to participate in all business sectors in Egypt and even establish branches outside the country. "It's very dangerous for a group that mixes religion with politics – and works under an international organisation aiming to convert all the world to Islam – to get a license," he said.
In public statements one month ago, El-Sadat had said that "most of the funds of Muslim Brotherhood International are estimated at $200 billion, most of which are deposited in Qatari banks."
During Monday's Shura Council committee debate, NGO representatives opened fire on the FJP bill. Sherif Mounir, representative of the NGO Support Centre, said the bill "adopts a very negative view of foreign NGOs."
"Obliging these NGOs to give detailed accounts of their sources of funding and donations is a very hard job; it is really aimed at scaring them away from Egypt," said Mounir.
For their part, Shura Council MPs – both Islamist and non-Islamist – joined forces to launch a scathing attack on foreign NGOs.
El-Erian accused foreign civil society groups, for example, of having played a major role in promoting Mubarak-era corruption. "The Americans gave Egypt $70 billion during the Mubarak era and then wonder 'Why do they hate us?" said El-Erian. "I would answer, because your money was used to spread corruption in this country."
He added: "We don't have any objections to foreign NGOs doing business in Egypt, but they must know that their funding will be subject to stringent transparency and control measures."
Nagi El-Shehabi, a member of the liberal Generation Party, meanwhile, asserted that "most foreign NGOs in Egypt are, in fact, espionage cells spying on Egypt for the US and Israel." Therefore, he added, "I see this new law as crucial to Egypt for eliminating the spies who have infiltrated the country under the cover of foreign 'NGOs'."